Currently, there is significant debate over the recent announcement by Victoria’s Shadow Education Minister, Martin Dixon, that a Coalition Government would enforce truancy laws and fine the parents of students who are absent from school over extended periods of time, or who are regularly absent. The application of these fines would occur where an unidentified person decided that the reasons provided for absence were unacceptable. The basis for such a decision is as yet unclear, and it is not this issue that I am addressing here. As things become clearer, I am sure there will still be much to be clarified.
What is perplexing are the debates around this issue. It seems that there are two main arguments coming to the fore. The first is that some parents choose to enable their children to remain home, or are forced to keep their children home from school due to limited access to childcare (where an older sibling remains home to look after a younger sibling). The second line of argument emerging suggests that schooling simply does not suit all children. I have a number of concerns about each of the arguments, but even more about a broader set of questions: What is the purpose of education and how is this purpose being fulfilled? When were the compulsory years of schooling changed? Why do we have to fine parents to help them and their children see the value in attending school? Oh, that’s right – it’s not about valuing education, it’s all about attendance.
That there is insufficient infrastructure to enable parents to maintain full-time employment, and children to be cared for seems to be a big problem for a society which aspires to be a contender in global markets. Surely, global success can only be built on local stability of economic and labour resources? And there would be a number of experts who could provide a range of statistics to both support and challenge such a claim.
For me, however, the greatest concerns lie within schooling. The United Nations charter clearly states that all children must have access to education. Beyond the infrastructural issues highlighted, I suggest that there must be an addendum added, which states that all children must have access to an education which is meaningful and purposeful in the child’s/person’s life. Education is a right and current federal moves around the colonisation of teacher professionalism, national curriculum and testing regimes are denying opportunities for the diverse modes and styles of education which are required within the diversity of Australia’s population. How will parents and students easily identify the ways in which education and schooling specifically meet their needs and purposes when there is a clear message that one size fits all?
Forcing school attendance in the way suggested by Mr Dixon creates many new sets of problems. At the very minimum schools become devalued even further as holding yards for our youth until old enough to be legally employed. And, as they are held in the school, they are labelled unsuccessful as NAPLAN and other standardised tests reinforce that these students do not reflect acceptable skills and knowledge. . . but STOP . . . all roads are leading to the same place.
If our education system is not working, why is the government rehashing approaches of days gone by? At what stage will policymakers, often non-educational folk, enable professional educators to rethink what is purposeful, meaningful and valuable for our students, their futures and the ways in which they can shape and contribute to our world?